Oscars: Academy's Invitation List Is Well-Intentioned, But Misguided

B.D. Wong, Betty White and Jordan Peele_Split - Getty - H 2017
Getty Images

I do not relish writing this post, but it is my job, as The Hollywood Reporter's awards columnist, to recognize and notify readers about the stories behind the stories that pertain to awards, even if doing so doesn't endear me to everyone who might read them — so here we go.

On Wednesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released a list of the people it has invited to join its membership this year — a list containing a record-setting 774 names, a sizable portion of whom are women and people of color — and, in my assessment, it erred badly.

To understand why, we have to go back a few years. The Oscar nominations announced in 2015 and 2016 did not feature any people of color among the 20 acting nominees for either year, sparking outrage and a hashtag that quickly went viral: #OscarsSoWhite. The Academy staved off a boycott of the Oscars in 2016 by recommitting to a prior vow to double its 2015 percentages of women and people of color by 2020, and by suggesting that "inactive" members — a clear reference to the old white men who always had accounted for the lion's share of the membership — would lose their voting privileges.

The latter move was largely abandoned as incumbent members expressed outrage at the implication that they were racist. But the former initiative was prioritized, since it would be far easier to dilute the influence of the old white male demographic than it would be to excommunicate them. To that end, the Academy, a year ago, flooded its organization with a then-record 683 new members — including, as with this year, unprecedented numbers of women and people of color, many of whose film-specific credentials quite frankly did not merit an invitation.

There are a number of problems with this approach.

1) It lends credence to the outside accusations that the Academy's nominations in 2015 and 2016 were problematic in the first place. Optically, of course, they were, but, in reality, no woman or person of color had been robbed of a nomination that had been universally expected, and there were no inexplicable absences among the nominees. The Academy's leadership knew that its members — who had embraced films about and performances by people of color in the immediately previous years and who had elected governors who had, in turn, elected the Academy's first black female president — were not racist in any significant numbers, any more than they were homophobic (a ridiculous excuse sometimes given for why Brokeback Mountain lost the best picture Oscar to Crash in 2006), but they pandered anyway.

2) Markedly lowering the bar for entry into the Academy dilutes the credibility of the organization and the prestige of its awards.

3) When the 2017 set of nominations — the first after the diversity deluge — included numerous films about and performances by people of color, many people, including #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign and apparently the Academy itself, saw that as confirmation that the Academy's course of action, as far as invitations, had been necessary and was working. In fact, it is my firm belief that there was no cause-and-effect whatsoever, and that the same films and performances would have been nominated in either of the prior two years, since they were more the sort of films to which the Academy always has responded.

One could argue that a more diverse Academy ultimately tipped the final outcome of the best picture Oscar race in favor of Moonlight rather than La La Land — but again, I think that sells short Academy members of all demographics, as it implies that people of color are predisposed to vote for people of color and white people are predisposed to vote for white people. In my experience of interacting with Academy members, neither has been true. Moonlight's biggest fans included old white people and La La Land's young black people.

Regardless, the Academy, after announcing its new members list a year ago, apparently enjoyed getting some positive media coverage for the first time in a long time, which probably explains why it did the same thing again on Wednesday — only on a larger scale. This year, in an interactive press release, the Academy touted the fact that seven of its branches invited more women than men; that 39 percent of its invitees are women; and that 30 percent of its invitees are people of color. But those percentages are far larger than the overall percentages of the industry that those demos account for, which may partly explain why the Academy, with last year's invitations, largely depleted the pool of women and people of color who have had the sorts of film-specific careers to merit an invitation (while making some very questionable invitations then as well). And, therefore, you can imagine how this year's list looks even more problematic under a microscope.

I hate to single anyone out, but I don't think even the people who I am going to reference would argue that they have had the sort of film career that already merits an invitation to the film Academy. Let's start with this year's invitees to the acting branch, whose names are the most familiar to the general public. Wanda Sykes? Zoe Kravitz? Terry Crews? Really? Some have made only one big-screen contribution of any note, such as Wonder Woman's Gal Gadot. And many are predominantly known for their work on the small screen: The Night Of's Riz Ahmed, Atlanta's Donald Glover, Underground's Aldis Hodge, Saturday Night Live's Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon, The Cosby Show's Phylicia Rashad, The Golden Girls' Betty White and Mr. Robot's B.D. Wong. (I have similar reservations about several white male invitees, as well, such as Mad Men's Jon Hamm and ex-bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno.)

Then there are the other branches, some of which invited people who have literally made only one film in a capacity applicable to the branch they were invited to join, such as directing branch invitee Jordan Peele (Get Out); he also was invited to join the writers branch, which is somewhat more justifiable, if you regard 2016's Keanu as Academy-caliber (which Academy members did not). And then there are instances when one looks at the two credits listed beside most invitees — presumably two of their very best — and one has to ask if those people are being invited because of their credits or their demographics (e.g. the screenwriter of Snatched and the 2016 Ghostbusters, the film editor of American Pastoral and The Age of Adaline, the composers of Unfinished Song and London to Brighton and of Jane Got a Gun and Layer Cake).

None of this is intended to insult the talent and/or doubt the future potential of any of these individuals, but rather to examine and question what the Academy is trying to do here. I believe that the Academy's intentions are admirable, but that its tactics are foolhardy. The bottom line is that the Academy cannot fix the industry's diversity problems any more than a tail can wag a dog. This is not a problem that can be reverse-engineered.

The Academy is the last stop on a film's long journey, should all go well, and if you want to know why the Academy is not nominating more women and people of color, then you need to focus on the earlier stops — the agents and managers, who could nurture the careers of more women and people of color; the studios, which could hire more of them; the distributors and foreign sales agents and marketing execs, who could further push back against assumptions that certain types of audiences will never attend movies featuring certain types of people.

Besides, the Academy's current course is akin to putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. Last year, even with a massive influx of diverse members, the Academy's overall female representation grew only from 25 percent to 27 percent and its overall representation of people of color grew only from 8 percent to 11 percent. And this year, assuming all invitees accept their invitation, overall female representation will only increase from 27 percent to 28 percent and overall representation of people of color will only increase from 11 percent to 13 percent.

At this rate, the Academy might as well do what it did for a number of years decades ago: Invite every member of almost every guild and comparable organization to vote for the Oscars and just call it a day.